Little Bits of History

June 18

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 18, 2017

1972: British European Airways (BEA) Flight 548 goes into a deep stall. BEA was founded in 1948 and flew from the United Kingdom to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. They were also the largest domestic UK operator with hubs in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Belfast. They were formed after World War II when restrictions on civil flying were lifted. They operated independently until 1974 when they merged with British Overseas Airways Corporation to form British Airways. On this day, the plane was a Hawker Siddeley HS 121 Trident (originally the de Havilland DH 121) which was typically used for short or medium-range flights. It was the first T-tail three-engined jet and 117 of them were built for BEA.

The incident took place amid turbulence caused by an impending pilots’ strike which caused disruptions among the crew members. A postal ballot was being held and because of the possible strike, Flight 548 was loaded to maximum capacity. Part of the issue was pay increases, which younger pilots needed, but older pilots did not. Twenty-two of the lower paid co-pilots were already out on strike and even more junior help was placed into a higher demand position in order to keep flights moving. Captain Stanley Key had complained just three days prior how useless the inexperienced and recently promoted co-pilots were. Because of tensions in the cockpit, even more errors were made and while experienced pilots could compensate for the errors, given enough time, it was part of the issues pilots had with the company.

Key was an experienced pilot, aged 51 and with 15,000 hours flying time including 4,000 hours on this particular plane type. Jeremy Keighley was co-pilot, aged 22 with six weeks of employment with the company and just 29 hours experience in the co-pilot position. Simon Ticehurst, aged 24, was the P3 crew member with 1,400 hours of flying time including 750 on Tridents. There were three more crew members and 112 passengers on the flight which left Heathrow Airport on its way to Brussels. Just three minutes before takeoff, three other people needed to fly a plane back from Brussels were boarded, which necessitated the removal of some cargo because of weight restrictions. The doors were locked and 4.03 PM the plane was given permission to taxi and three minutes later they were given departure clearance.

One minute later, with clearance given a second time, Key was permitted to take off into the stormy skies full of turbulence and low cloud cover. At 4.08.30 they began to taxi and were in the skies 44 seconds later. The cloud cover was so low, there was little visibility and at 114 seconds into the flight, mechanical procedures began, which needed more altitude to be done correctly. Within two seconds the plane went into a deep stall. With no time to correct the problem and the plane crashed precisely at 4.11 PM just missing a busy London road. All aboard were killed. The crash was investigated under a media circus atmosphere. The end result was a new rule necessitating planes now carry cockpit voice recorders.

We were out with the dog and I looked up and saw the plane.

It was just coming out of the mist when the engines stalled and it seemed it glided down. It was just like a dream. The plane just fell out of the sky.

We just about saw it hit the ground … because it was right in a clump of trees.

When it did hit the ground the front bit hit first and the back bit was just blown away. – all from Trevor Burke, eyewitness aged 13

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